It was a post like it is found millions of times a day on Chinese social media: “You are the source and target of all my tenderness,” wrote a 28-year-old. But there two reasons why her tweet on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, is special in socio-political terms. The author is the well-known national football player Li Ying. And the declaration of love is for her friend, the influencer Chen Leilei.
Attached to the post are two pictures. One shows them gazing into each other’s eyes in affection. The other shows a cake with a glowing candle. It symbolizes their one-year relationship anniversary. It is the first time that a Chinese top athlete comes out and announces her homosexual partnership in public.
Li Ying has been one of the most popular players on the Chinese women’s football team for years. Born and raised in a village near the southwestern Chinese metropolis of Chongqing, she started playing in the women’s professional league at the age of 19, first with team Xizi Hangzhou, and since 2015 for the Shangdong Ladies. The striker has already appeared in 116 international matches. And unlike Chinese men’s football, the women have enjoyed real international success. They made it to the round of 16 at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, and finished third at the Asian Cup a year earlier. In both tournaments, Li Ying scored the most goals for her country. In January, she became the first female footballer in China to be awarded the “Asian Team of the Decade”, an award given by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS).
Officially, same-sex love has been decriminalized in China since 1997. Since 2001, homosexuality is no longer on the list of mental illnesses. According to surveys in metropolitan areas, a majority also has nothing against gays and lesbians – as long as no one in their own family is homosexual. As a result, most homosexuals keep their sexual orientation to themselves. Over 90 percent of middle-aged lesbians and gays are reportedly living in heterosexual marriages. In recent years, however, significantly more celebrities have come out about their homosexuality than it was the case ten or 15 years ago, especially among internet stars and influencers.
Li Ying’s post about her outing immediately went viral on social media. While many comments supported her move, there were also cautionary voices. “I wish her the best … but I hope it won’t affect her career in any way,” wrote one Weibo user. Prominent soccer commentator and blogger Zhao Zhen, who has more than five million followers on Weibo, noted, “Homosexuality in women’s soccer is no longer a secret.” However, Li Ying is the first to be brave enough to make her sexual orientation and girlfriend public as well, he said. She deserves a lot of respect.
Nevertheless, Li Ying’s post was deleted only a few hours after it was published. Some users speculate that Li was pressured by the authorities. Felix Lee